A dystopian allegory about how cultures can become cruelly prisonlike, from the Booker-winning author of The Famished Road (1992).
Okri’s somber, fablelike novel is a call to rally against oppressive institutions and for broader social consciousness. In that regard, it’s an inheritor of The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and Things Fall Apart. Unlike those novels, though, the story is sparer, with only the barest scaffold of characterization and plot. In an unnamed city, a young man named Karnak had been neglecting peculiar graffiti springing up reading “Who is the prisoner?” until his lover, Amalantis, is hustled away by authorities. Elsewhere, Mirababa, a boy, is challenged by his grandfather to “find the elixir of freedom, and bring it back to the people.” As both go on their journeys, Okri describes a totalitarian state that whips up myth and propaganda to keep society in line, hunts down all critics of its authority, wipes reading from the culture, and renders its populace in a kind of agony, screaming at night while they sleep. The resistance’s graffiti changes (“upwake!”), and Okri cycles in more characters like Ruslana, whose father was “the last guardian of the tribe of writers." Okri’s writing is sturdy and graceful, fully inhabiting the authoritative tone of mythmaking; the grotesque imagery of institutional savagery in its latter chapters is harrowing. Yet the structure of the book is so simple, and its twists so modest, that the story has trouble sustaining itself at novel length. Okri reiterates the same laments for lost wisdom, and the book’s climactic calls for education and self-awareness are so familiar, with bromides about how our social problems start with us, that the novel edges into hectoring, wake-up-sheeple territory.
Okri’s fury is plainly visible under his deliberately plainspoken prose but in a story that's more thin than universal.